Forget the primary. For a moment Friday in Fort Lauderdale, it seemed as though next year’s general election had already arrived.
Democrat Hillary Clinton took direct aim at Republican Jeb Bush — who in turn made a pitch to the voters whose support he would need to defeat Clinton.
Clinton didn’t name Bush when she spoke to the annual conference of the National Urban League, a civil-rights organization that welcomed five 2016 presidential candidates. But she referred to the “right to rise” — the name of a political action committee raising money for him.
“Too often we see a mismatch between what some candidates say in venues like this, and what they actually do when they’re elected,” Clinton said.
“I don’t think you can credibly say that everyone has a ‘right to rise’ and then say you’re for phasing out Medicare or for repealing Obamacare. People can’t rise if they can’t afford health care. They can’t rise if the minimum wage is too low to live on. They can’t rise if their governor makes it harder for them to get a college education. And you cannot seriously talk about the right to rise and support laws that deny the right to vote.”
That last line, alluding to some of Bush’s policies as Florida governor, prompted a round of enthusiastic applause. Bush’s administration purged the voter rolls and shortened early-voting hours, two measures that disproportionately hurt African Americans.
“What people say matters, but what they do matters more,” Clinton said.
Bush’s campaign accused Clinton of lobbing “more false, cheap political shots to distract from the fact that Secretary Clinton has no record of accomplishment to run on this race.
“The Urban League deserved better today,” Bush spokeswoman Allie Brandenburger said in a statement.
Bush himself, who took the stage at the Greater Fort Lauderdale-Broward County Convention Center about an hour after Clinton, ignored what she had said about him. He focused on doing what he has challenged all Republicans do: Campaign to voters who almost always cast ballots for Democrats.
“I know that there are unjust barriers to opportunity and upward mobility in this country,” Bush told the mostly black audience of more than 500 people. “Some we can see, others are unseen but just as real. So many lives can come to nothing, or come to grief, when we ignore problems, or fail to meet our own responsibilities. And so many people could do so much better in life if we could come together and get even a few big things right in government.
“I acted on that belief as governor of Florida. It’s a record I’ll gladly compare with that of anyone else in the field.”
That record included taking down the Confederate battle flag from the Florida Capitol in 2001 — an “easy call,” Bush said. He trumpeted increasing the number of black state judges by 43 percent and seeing the number of minority-owned businesses triple. And his educational reforms, he said — instituting school grades, creating subsidized private-school vouchers and expanding privately run, publicly funded charter schools — helped needy kids.
“We can never forget that long-term reform doesn’t help a child right now,” he said.
Bush made a nod to racial profiling and distrust of law enforcement by the black community. But unlike Clinton and later two other Democratic candidates, he didn’t mention the names of specific African Americans who died after interactions with law enforcement.
“Trust in our vital institutions is at historic lows. It is up to all of us to work diligently to rebuild that trust,” he said. “That happens one person at a time. One politician at a time. One police officer at a time.”
Bush was interrupted several times for applause, but the crowd was not as enthusiastic as it was for Clinton.
Clinton, the former U.S. secretary of state, said she had long advocated for issues such as raising the minimum wage and fighting for students, particularly early on in her career in the Children’s Defense Fund.
“These issues — your issues — are deeply personal to me,” she said.
And she had some fans in the crowd.
Coreen Norville, 57, of Pembroke Pines, said she likes Clinton but wants more than talk from candidates. “I’ve been around a long time — I’ve seen that show before,” she said of politicians who don’t follow through on their promises.
Though Bush and Clinton were the main draw, three other candidates also took turns behind the microphone: Democrats Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley and Republican Ben Carson. Of the three, Sanders, a Vermont senator and self-described socialist making his first Florida campaign appearance, received the warmest welcome.
“The $7.25 minimum wage is in my view a starvation wage,” Sanders said, calling for an increase to $15 an hour. He decried wealthy elites, particularly billionaires’ ability to write multimillion-dollar checks to political campaigns.
“That, to me, is not democracy,” he said. “That is oligarchy.”
He and O’Malley, the former Maryland governor, were nearly heckled offstage at a liberal conference two weeks ago by protesters chanting, “Black lives matter” — shorthand for asking politicians to address institutional racism. Both candidates fumbled their responses at the time by failing to directly address the issue. They made amends Friday.
“Black lives do matter, and we must value black lives,” Sanders said.
“Every year we buried 300 young black men who died violent deaths on our streets, and black lives matter,” said O’Malley, recalling his tenure as Baltimore mayor.
Carson, who retired to West Palm Beach and is the only major African-American presidential candidate, recounted his childhood growing up “in dire poverty” and thinking he would “probably never live beyond 25 years of age.”
He faced racism, said Carson, but he attributed it to ignorance — and concluded with a little life advice from his years as a neurosurgeon.
“You just have to understand where people are coming from,” he said. “It’s not the skin and the hair that makes them who they are. It’s the brain that makes them who they are.”